Friday, August 27, 2010

Plumed Pogrom or Fairy Tale Ethos?

Plumed Pogrom or Fairy Tale Ethos

In August 2009 my husband and I visited one of the prettiest little patches of land (should I say water) near our farmhouse. Some see only a dismal pond, paved over by intersecting roads. But we see a marsh filled with waterfowl, waders and exotic birds. We like this swampy spot because it attracts a variety of wildlife, mainly cranes, herons, different duck species and egrets. On that particular August evening we felt ambitious and not only remembered to take our binoculars but also a spotting scope. The scope turned out to be entirely unneeded because the primary attraction that evening, a family of trumpeter swans (father, mother and two fledglings), was resting at the side of the road. But since we had dragged the scope along, we set it up cattycorner to the birds. The two elder birds soon lifted their heads and began a melancholic song. We watched for some moments in silence, completely engrossed. Lost in the moment, we didn't even notice when a huge yellow Hummer SUV pulled up alongside us. It rolled down the window and yelled out “Get a life!” The tires then screeched and we heard laughter as the vehicle sped off. We packed up the spotting scope and chuckled; we must have looked ridiculous using a telescope-like contraption when we could have driven the car right up to the birds.

But that’s not the end of the story. Several days later when we returned to this favorite spot, instead of finding the swan family, we found swan effigies, that is, numerous stuffed animals in swan shape, hand-drawn signs, pictures and photos at the spot the swans had once frequented. The posters reported that two swans had been killed, even suggesting the birds had been viciously murdered. A $5,000 reward was offered to find the swans’ slayer. It was believed the cygnets had first been lured into the road and then shot by someone. The next morning the adult male was found alive, however because of broken wings and severe injuries this third swan also had to be euthanized.

Township residents went into mourning for their swans and the authorities promised a prompt investigation that would surely lead to prosecution of the culprit(s). But amidst the outcry, some criticism could also be heard. One of the more interesting comments posted on the website was this by a contributor named Jordan:

Raise your fist in anger, but I'm going to say it: They're just swans. They're animals. Yes, it is sad that they won't be there anymore. And if the swans were maliciously killed by people, which seems to be the general, albeit unproven, consensus, then it was a disgusting act. But when I saw that a group had already managed to raise $5,000 for information on the "slaying of the swans," I couldn't really believe it.”

Jordan put it all in perspective: the local food bank was experiencing a critical shortage of food. As more and more people lost their jobs, they were relying on this support and local agencies had reported an increase in demand and ever-diminishing resources to meet the need. Now that was truly something you could get angry about. But the passionate and spontaneous response to an attack on birds was startling.

Most people seemed to believe the swans were intentionally killed. Later the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reported they hadn't died from gunshot wounds but rather from blunt trauma, consistent with having been hit by a car or truck. Regardless of how they received their injuries, the act was premeditated in the mind of the public. The outpouring of grief for the birds was swift. A makeshift shrine appeared on both sides of the road. People brought stuffed swan animals, posted pictures, wrote little prayers, and erected crosses. I guess I had always thought few people actually paid any attention to the birds. But as it turned out, I was only one of many swan-admirers. Many local residents had been following the swan family saga: they watched as the adults first built their nest in the marsh, they looked on as the parents patiently sat on their eggs, and when the eggs finally hatched they saw the nestlings’ heads peeking out from matted straw. Soon carloads of people were stopping to watch the swan family and some even photographed them on their way to work. The swans had become an important part of people's every-day routine, an important element of their landscape.

But what does all this have to do with fairy tales? Folk tradition often likens the swan to an immaculate or faultless person. In folklore the creature is often described as one without blemish, and is often associated with bards or poets. (How sinful then to kill such a creature!) According to myth, the swan portends its own death when it sings its famous swan song. German mythology is filled with swan lore, ascribing magical properties to them (see Swan Mythology on this website). When carefully read, many of the fairy tales presented on this website seem to offer a distinct "fairy tale attitude" toward the natural world and toward animals in particular. A good example of these "fairy tale values" is provided by the stories The Little Ringed Snake and The Fairy Tale of Horse and Fox. Here an inherent respect for animals is evident. This appreciation of nature, some would even say fervent love of the landscape and all it contains, is matter-of-fact in fairy tales. Often there is an invisible inter-connectedness between people, place and thing, which is the whole point of the story. These unseen links are often interpreted as mere dramatic devices, a bit of curious magic or silly enchantment, but actually reflect a much deeper fairy tale ethos (perhaps one might even call it "moral imagination").

Here is one example of what I mean:
In popular German folklore, the snake often represents a house spirit or ancestral ghost. Jakob Grimm has suggested these spirits were probably linked to popular notions about ancestors or even ancestor worship. House-snake-as-ancestral ghost would have been understood by the original audience of the tale (just like today most Americans would readily know what is meant the words cellphone or McMansion). Similar to a Tomte, this spirit lived alongside the family, frequently enjoying a separate parallel existence but not perceived by all family members.
(In the tale of the Little Ringed Snake, the creature appears as companion to a lonely child but the mother is unaware of its existence). Folk belief emphasized that such beings were actually the heart of the household. Should this creature be harmed, the family, its security and livelihood would also be threatened. In the world of the fairy tale, a thoughtless act of violence toward a helpless being is tantamount to bringing about one's own sudden (and usually dramatic) demise.

So a year later what is the status of the swan controversy? No swan-killers were ever identified. The little shrine at the side of the road has vanished. And I wrote out a check to the local breakfast program for the homeless.

To view pictures of the swan memorials click on link Swan Song
To read Fairy Tale Detectives Solve the Mystery of the Swan Slayer click on link.